I always crack up when I hear a Hollywood ‘spokesman,’ studio head, or director/producer claim (usually in a legal context) that their product does not influence people. I’m pretty certain they don’t believe their own words. I sure hope they don’t.
Looking back on my adolescence, I am convinced that film and music (TV too – but I’ll leave that for another Lars List) not only shaped my identity, they provided me a moral code and frame of reference that saw me through hard times and taught me how to appreciate the unpredictable circumstances of life.
Before I get to five films that shaped me, I have to single out two films that, while they may not have shaped me, they sure as hell influenced me. Two films that gave me bad ideas and got me in unmentionable trouble vis-a-vie shenanigans and tom foolery and other such stuff of a silly growing pain malfeasant nature. On second thought, maybe I won’t name the films because my readers are smart – scratch that! damn smart – enough to deduce my misconduct. Ah, what the heck. But I must warn you, regardless of the ratings of these two 1983 films (coincidentally, the year I graduated high school) do not let your teenagers see Risky Business or Scarface until they are safely out of your home and holding down well-paying jobs with cozy benefits. Films most certainly do influence us.
Here are five films that shaped me and why:
An Officer and a Gentleman “Cuz I got no place else to go!!!!” For those of us who battle feeling always like the underdog, An Officer and a Gentleman (1982) is pure heroine.
I hadn’t discovered Marlon Brando at the time I saw Richard Gere in An Officer and a Gentleman. I had no desire to be an actor, although looking back to my subconscious now, maybe I knew I was going to be one. I am sure that I didn’t want to “fly jets,” but something about Gere’s ‘Zack Mayo’ made me want to be Gere so I could play guys like ‘Zack Mayo.’
Gere’s performance in An Officer and a Gentleman is still one of the finest I’ve seen from a leading man since I began paying attention. The film has a ton working for it, from the brilliant and Oscar-winning work of Louis Gosset, Jr, to the generous and vulnerable talents of a young Debra Winger (‘Paula’) – not to mention a young filmmaker in Taylor Hackford (Oscar nom. for Ray) working from a well-structured and heartfelt script by Douglas Day Stewart.
Gere’s rough and wounded and arrogant characterization struck me as so honest and layered. I absorbed all of his angst and pain, how could you not? Young ‘Zack’ got his ass kicked by bullies. He looked at his dad and saw human waste. He didn’t know much, but he knew he had to get out and move on – and up. He went into the Naval Academy thinking he could short cut his way to his goal and learned the hard way that there can’t be any short cuts if it’s going to mean anything. Valuable lesson for ‘Mayo-naise.’ Glad I got to gravy train it.
‘Zack’ had no idea how to treat a woman. How to be a boyfriend – or a friend for that matter. He was a loner, not so much by choice, but by circumstance – but he knew he was destined for more. And we knew it was going to be painful.
The song/image we all remember from this iconic film is the ending. ‘Mayo’ lifting ‘Paula’ heroically into his arms at the factory and carrying her off to Joe Cocker’s “Lift Us Up Where We Belong.” But the moment of maturity in the film is when ‘Mayo’ approaches ‘Paula’ at the jukebox in the bar. They are cordial and sweet – and both full of regret knowing they may have let love slip through their fingers. Playing on the jukebox is Dire Straits’ ‘Tunnel of Love.’ It’s one of those cinematic moments that grabbed me by the collar and taught me how to behave when times are tough. Taking the high road is noble.
When Gosset Jr’s drill sergeant ‘Foley’ approached cadet ‘Mayo’ at the end of the film and the music swelled – I felt like I was graduating too. I was graduating to a new plateau of wisdom and compassion – and ambition. I had no real plans of becoming an officer, but I was thankful someone took the time to help me become a gentleman.
Saturday Night Fever Yes, I wore the silk shirts and, yes, I danced around my basement, dropping painfully to my knees, arms folded, busting out my best ‘Tony Manero’ moves. No, I did not eat two slices of pizza at once or smoke cigarettes. But I learned an awful lot from goofy ol’ ‘Tony’ (John Travolta). Watch him work the floor in the paint store in the film’s opening scene. Retail help everywhere could learn from ‘Tony.’ Kill ’em with kindness! Made him valuable to his boss, earned him leverage – and got him a raise. Great lesson for any teenager. He also knew what he was saving for – the poor sap loved to dance and was willing to work to make it possible. ‘Tony’ taught me how to get dressed in front of a mirror – to like what I saw – to have a little mojo in my step, take a little pride in my appearance. I even went out and got the Farrah Fawcett poster. Kind of wish I still had it.
‘Tony’ also valued his friends and took time to mentor (“You could do as good as me if you practiced.”). He wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed but he was driven and knew that hard work paid off. And boy did it pay off for ‘Tony’ on the dance floor. What guy wouldn’t love to walk into a club and feel the kind of adoration and respect ‘Tony’ received from his public when he took his skills out for display? Sure, he wasn’t always so nice to the gals and his Italian street language was rough around the racial edges, but even that was instrumental in showing how not to behave.
Then there was the soundtrack. Wow! Still such a great jam. All those timeless Bee Gees tunes didn’t just fall off of a music tree. They came from this classic film. From ‘Stayin’ Alive‘ to ‘How Deep is Your Love,’ I must have listened to that disc 5,000 times. And it always made me feel like I was headed for something great. Like I was stepping firmly on a velvet step on a golden ladder…to somewhere.
The defining moment for me in Saturday Night Fever is the moment ‘Tony’ ups his game. He is rehearsing with ‘Stephanie’ (superb Karen Lynn Gorney) to Tavares’ “More Than a Woman” when he suddenly realizes his leverage at the studio can be used to upgrade their rehearsal to the main dance room. It is a foreshadowing moment that still brings a tear to my eye. The way the “sophisticated” ‘Stephanie’ suddenly looks at him with newfound respect and…love, sets up the rest of the film and makes the love story work, crucial to the success of this picture. Then when ‘Tony’ and ‘Steph’ win the dance contest and ‘Tony’ realizes it was all a sham, it’s because he is now in love and has something more to live for.
I saw this film three times without my parents’ knowledge (thank you, Mr. Piga). I held it close to my chest because I didn’t see my dad that much and I had a ton of questions. I was grabbing bits and pieces of modeling clay wherever I could find ’em. I used to love building models. Saturday Night Fever (1977) was my first R rated film. I’m thankful for that.
West Side Story Most of my childhood was gleefully spent wrapped up in sports. I was either playing whiffle ball, floor hockey, or basketball at our local community center with some of the best friends I’ve ever made. Friends I still have a shorthand with and a few I even have daily contact with to this very day. The fabric, really, of my life.
But there was a brief ‘vacation’ from the testosterone zone thanks to a rather happy fellow who had been hired to help out at our rec center. A fellow who loved musical theatre and couldn’t tell a hockey puck from a door jamb. But he knew show tunes, and amazingly was able to enlist a bunch of scruffy and ultra-competetive 13 yr olds to turn their energy to a little project he would call ‘A Trip Down Broadway.’
Long story short (or is it already too late?), I was cast as ‘Tony’ in Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story (1961). And I’ve been singing ‘Maria’ in the shower ever since.
I’ve also been girl crazy ever since. In a good way…I think. ‘Tony’ made being smitten look alright, even kind of cool. He was a ‘Jet’ in remission, working at the malt shop, trying to stay clean, but still had mad respect from his gang. If only ‘Riff’ hadn’t talked him into going to that confounded mixer he might just have gone on and lived a perfectly…safe…tax paying suburban life. But he did go to that confounded mixer, and it was there that he met ‘Maria,’ thus sealing his fate.
A ‘Jet’ can’t date a ‘Shark.’ Hell no. But ‘Tony’ taught me that some things are worth fighting for. I fought in defense of a girl at a Burger King and it cost me eight stitches over my right eye. I fought for the honor of a girl I used to walk home from school with cuz she was my neighbor and the only friend I had at my new school, taking on two bullies at once and drawing a new line in the sand. I fought over a girl I thought was mine and only mine, three times in the same night, kind of like a title fight, but not really. I fought with my girlfriends, usually on the phone, when I felt betrayed, or sometimes just felt ignored, or even worse, jealous. I was girl crazy, and it all came with the territory. Love may not exactly conquer all, but it is better to have loved and to have lost than to have never have loved at all.
To this day, when I watch ‘Tony’ bust in to ‘Something’s Coming’ I am reminded of how important optimism and hope are to a young person.
“Something’s coming – I don’t know! – what it is! – but it is! – gonna be great!”
The World According to Garp I first saw The World According to Garp (1982) while I was tearing tickets as an usher at a swanky suburban movie theatre outside Minneapolis. My crash course in film study was significant and impressive during the time I worked there. Get this: we had a deluxe screen (used often for premieres) and a small screen for more ‘artsy’ pictures, and in one entire calendar year (1981) we ran Reds on the big screen and Chariots of Fire on the little screen, Chariots won the Oscar for Best Picture and Reds won for Best Direction (Warren Beatty). If your job necessitates watching films over and over and over, those are some pretty good loops. As was Garp, which ran exclusively at our prestigious theatre for nearly six months.
To this day the line I quote most frequently from Garp is delivered as Robin Williams’ ‘T.S. Garp’ and Mary Beth Hurt’s ‘Helen’ are looking at homes with a real estate agent and a small single engine plane (flown by the film’s director George Roy Hill in a fun cameo) crashes into the home they are admiring. “We’ll take the house,” says ‘Garp’ with confidence. “This home has been pre-disastered. We’re gonna be safe here.” Lot of wisdom in that gag. We all know that lightning rarely strikes the same golfer twice but imagery like this scene from Garp goes a great distance further in cementing an axiom or life philosophy than mere platitudes can.
This film is epic, both in the journeys shared by the characters, and in its attitudes and life lessons.
‘Jenny Fields’ (Glenn Close), the matriarchal and pioneering feminist advocacy leader central to the film’s conflict, delivers ‘Garp’ out of wedlock and proceeds to march on with self-determination and a fascinating devotion to her young son. Sure, she chose to be a single mother, but the message to me, and the huge number of children from broken homes, was that life goes on and you move forward with determination and no self-pity. ‘Garp’ had no father figure to model himself after so he cobbled it together from the influences around him. He took in the good, filtered out the bad.
Both ‘Garp’ and his wife ‘Helen’ suffer enormous consequences from their infidelities but ultimately understand the value and significance of holding their family together, even after gut wrenching heartbreak at the loss of a child – “Make it fly, daddy.” John Lithgow’s transsexual character, ‘Roberta Muldoon,’ who was once a tight end for the Philadelphia Eagles (“I had great hands.”) – such a wise choice by the author, John Irving, an avid athlete himself, to make ‘Roberta’ not only incredibly loyal and endearing, but a football player, something a teenaged boy is forced to consider before harshly judging or simply dismissing as a “freak.”
‘Garp’ was a hands-on dad who played imaginative games with his two young boys in the front yard and made everyday life an adventure. He was fun-loving, but also tough as nails, as demonstrated when he chases down a reckless handyman who speeds unlawfully through their domesticated neighborhood. “We are civilized people!” I think of that scene all the time when such issues arise involving the safety or welfare of my children.
The Nat King Cole song on the radio in ‘Garp’s’ car as he drives the babysitter home was my introduction to what I have grown to admire as the smoothest voice ever recorded. The song, “There Will Never Be Another You,” returns at the end of the film, giving it additional weight.
‘Garp’s’ son, little ‘Walt,’ asking his grandmother (Close) “What’s it like to be old?” Her answer comforts me still. “Well, it’s kind of nice. If you’re very lucky – you will have a lot of friends and a lot of memories and you can sit and think about them.”
Roll all of those lessons into a beautifully tragic ending, with ‘Garp’ being airlifted by helicopter away from the scene of his murder, his loving (and forgiving!) wife at his side. He says to her simply “Remember, Helen.” She is there for him. “What, my love?” To which he smiles with the kind of contentment we should all hope for at that moment and says “Everything.”
Such a profound film to watch over and over and over again at age 16 with so much to learn.
To Sir With Love Not many films inform you how to be both a better student and a better teacher. My first exposure to the national treasure known as Sidney Poitier left an irreversible impression on me. A sidenote to this piece: Early in my acting career I felt the glow, standing in a lonely corridor at Lorimar Studios, rehearsing my sides for a sappy sitcom called “Step By Step,” when up the stairs walked (floated?) Mr. Sidney Poitier. He glanced at me as he passed, obviously aware I was preparing to audition, and simply grinned and said “Break a leg.”
To Sir With Love (1967) didn’t teach me about race relations. Poitier’s films never meant that for me. They reinforced what I already knew in my heart about my fellow man, thanks to my upbringing. Looking back on this film now, and I can never move past it on my ‘telly’ once I spy it, I am reminded of something once said about the ‘soft bigotry of lowered expectations.’ Poitier’s ‘Sir’ set high standards for himself and for his students. It wasn’t the easy path but it was the right one, and the only one that would actually make a difference in the lives of the young adults he was hired to teach. He led by example with a dignity and patience his students had never been exposed to.
My own boys are well along in school now, one about to graduate college. I can’t help but be a little disappointed at the small number of teachers they have each had over their academic tracks that have really stood out, really made a lasting impression. My mother was one such teacher. Always striving to create new and exciting ways to reach her pupils. When I was younger it grew tiresome to have so many people approach me about “what a difference” my mother made in their lives. “Such a great teacher!” Now, of course, it’s a piece to the puzzle that makes so much sense.
What I learned most from ‘Sir’ was this. Decency is not only the highest standard you can set for yourself, decency can be cool. In Poitier’s case, decency can even be sexy. When ‘Sir’ is speechless after Lulu sings to him the title song at the end of the film and he is presented a going away gift, I swell with pride and gratitude now watching him struggle to utter “I think I should go put this away.” I see a lot of myself in that moment. I didn’t back when I first saw this film, but I do now. ‘Sir’ taught me and I learned. Now I try to pay it forward to my children.